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Creating Understanding

How Communicating Aligns Minds


Jessica Gasiorek and R. Kelly Aune

What, exactly, is understanding? And how do people create, maintain, and manipulate states of understanding via communication? This book addresses these questions, drawing on interdisciplinary scholarship in cognitive science, communication, psychology, and pragmatics. Rejecting classic descriptions of communication as "sending and receiving messages," this book proposes a novel perspective that depicts communication as a process in which interactants construct, test, and refine mental modes of a joint experience on the basis of the meme states (mental representations) activated by stimuli in social interactions. It explains how this process, when successful, results in interactants' mental models aligning, or becoming entrained—in other words, in creating a state of understanding. This framework is grounded in a set of foundational observations about evolved human cognition that highlight people's intrinsic social orientation, predisposition toward efficiency, and use of predictive interference-making. These principles are also used to explain how codified systems ("codes") emerge in extended or repeated interactions in which people endeavor to create understanding. Integrating and synthesizing research across disciplines, this book offers communication scholars and students a theoretical framework that will transform the way they see understanding, communication, and social connection.

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Chapter Three: Premises: Human Cognition and Behavior



Premises: Human Cognition and Behavior

In this chapter, we present three interrelated observations about human cognition and behavior that serve as premises for explaining how people create understanding. Specifically, we observe that human beings are fundamentally social in orientation; that human mental processes are governed by a predisposition for efficiency; and that predictive inference-making is a core feature of human mental activity. We review and synthesize evidence for each of these observations, and discuss their potential evolutionary basis.

Having defined understanding as a state in which two (or more) people experience entrainment of their situation models as a result of at least one person’s use of social stimuli, we now turn our attention to addressing how people achieve this outcome—that is, how people create understanding in social interaction. The best answers to “how” questions are typically models of a process, and this is what we will ultimately propose: a process model of creating understanding. However, before proposing such a model, we wish to lay a firm foundation. The concepts of stimuli, meme states, and situation models constitute a start. In this chapter, we finish the foundation by presenting a set of premises for our model.

More specifically, we present a set of interrelated observations about the nature of humans’ brains and behavior that hold across contexts, and serve as premises for our model of creating understanding. We contend that these observations govern, and by extension can explain,...

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